Proper 23 C October 13, 2013
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
2 Timothy 2:8-15
When I drive around a city like Syracuse, I experience a profound sense of dislocation. None of these places are like they used to be. Whole industries have just picked up and moved, leaving behind the communities of people – immigrants from somewhere else -- who moved here to work in those industries. Several years ago, my brother, who has had a good, United Auto Workers-guaranteed job with Chrysler Corporation for many years, moved to Indiana, to work a last few years in order to keep his pension intact. When I go to Armory Square, I remember it as kind of seedy but industrial. The factories on West Fayette Street were busy places. People living on the West Side could walk to work. To work. I’m kind of shocked to learn that the zip code where I grew up – 13204 – is one of the poorest in the nation. As we survey the urban, industrial landscape in America, you could describe it all as an experience of exile, from decades of stable jobs, stable families, stable neighborhoods.
In our Old Testament lesson, we are in the land of the exiles. Jeremiah is again preaching to the exiles in Babylon, those who have been uprooted by force, by the violence of an invading army, and transported to a foreign land, the place, as we read in the psalm of exile, Psalm 137, where the people could not conceive of finding God: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” But Jeremiah, the prophet who told these people that their own faithless behavior caused God to send them into exile – this same Jeremiah now comes back at them with a word of hope.
Ok, he says, there you are in that foreign city, that unrecognizable place, where you have been thrown into exile. But that is the very place where God wants you: where God wants you to settle down, to build homes and gardens, to have families and children, to live and prosper. Seek the welfare of that very city where you now live – not the city of your romantic, longed-for or nostalgic past. Not the city where things used to be so good. Seek the welfare of THIS city. Pray that God bless THIS city. For it is in the welfare of THIS city that you will find your welfare.
The Hebrew word for welfare is shalom, a word used 397 times in the bible! It is translated into English in many ways, reflecting the complexity of how it is used in Hebrew. Shalom means peace, weal – as in “Commonweal” or “Commonwealth” – it means completeness, to cause to be at peace, to make peace, to be at rest, at ease, to be secure, or safe, or to prosper, to be whole, to be perfect, to be victorious. It is at the heart of the word “Jerusalem” – salem. It is the same as the Arabic word, salaam. If we move into Greek, the language of the New Testament, shalom might be understood as what Jesus meant when he said “the kingdom of God:” the time and place when the justice, mercy and love of God prevail.
To work toward that vision of God’s shalom in this place is to work toward nothing we have seen before. Not in Syracuse, not in DeWitt, not at St. David’s. Jeremiah’s prophecy is that we are all in new territory now.
When the city of Jerusalem was invaded, and the leaders and people carried off in captivity to Babylon, there were some Jews who stayed behind. They lived in occupied territory, and they really lived there. Meaning they intermarried with the occupiers, and in the eyes of the exiles in Babylon, they were traitors. Since they did not suffer the pains of exile, and “collaborated” with the enemy, they were pariahs. When the Jews came back from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem, they treated these stay-behinds no longer as kinsmen, but as enemies. They were the Samaritans. Even the passing of hundreds of years could not erase this animosity, and as late as the days of Jesus, faithful Jews could barely spit out the name, “Samaritans.” The name was short-hand for everything disreputable, bad and unclean.
What a shocking story then Jesus tells, about lepers and gratitude. This is not just a story about how polite people say thank you (although this IS one of the appointed lessons for Thanksgiving Day). This is a story about God’s shalom, God’s wholeness, God’s health. About who is the citizen of God’s commonwealth. The only one who is truly whole is the one the other nine despised, the one marked by some as unclean forever. The one forever “other” than Jesus’ own people, the people of the covenant, the people who thought they were automatically assured of God’s grace.
The peace of God, then, is, amazingly, caught up in the peace of the other. Our welfare is inextricably tied up with the welfare of complete strangers. Our wholeness is wrapped up in the wholeness of our enemies. Our health is entwined with the health of people we consider “beneath us.” When we walk out of these doors, we pass Springfield Gardens, we go down South Salina Street, we’re on West Fayette Street. Our future will look nothing like our past, and this is where we plant our garden.